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"Muscle Shoals" Review

There's been a spate of documentaries in recent years covering the stories of the musicians involved in some of music's seminal hits. From Standing in the Shadows of Motown (about the "Funk Brothers", the house band at Hitsville, USA) to 20 Feet From Stardom (backup singers) and others, the stories of the unsung folks behind the music are being told and one of the more remarkable exposes is Muscle Shoals, about the titular town in northern Alabama (just south of the Tennessee border) behind some of rock and souls greatest hits and the amazingly sad story of the man who made it happen.

Just as Motown had Berry Gordy and Sun Records had Sam Phillips, the sound of Muscle Shoals' FAME Studios was Rick Hall, a man who has lived a life of constant tragic incidents which sound like a mash-up of every country and blues song cliche possible; I think the only things missing are prison and the dog dying. But despite being born into grinding poverty and having such misfortunes, he still founded the studio and assembled the house band - The Swampers (as name-checked in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama") - which backed seminal hits from Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and many more. Unless you're so white that you think Justin Bieber is funky, you've heard a LOT of the songs that came out of this humble building that looks like a carpeting warehouse more than a house of hits.

What's more fascinating is that in this tiny town (population NOW is only about 13,000) they were able to put together not one, but two groups of musicians (after Capitol Records stole the first house band) to lay down the hot soul grooves while dealing with their collective cases of crippling melanin-deficiency. (Translation: They were all white guys, not that anyone could hear the difference which is more than a little bit racist, donchathink?)

If there is a deficiency to Muscle Shoals it's that the filmmakers occasionally wander into too-artsy camerawork and metaphysical ramblings about the water and spirits, etc. There's no rational scientific or spiritual explanation for why this town turned out special and it's not as if anyone wonders why West Grand Boulevard in Detroit (where Motown's Hitsville USA was located), so I would've preferred more inside scoop on how the hits were made than navel-gazing. Still, it's a fascinating story; just a little unfocused in its telling.

Score: 7/10. Rent it.


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